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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Carlow Nationalist

Press Ombudsman finds that story about schoolgirls' 'distracting' clothing breached accuracy principle

The Carlow Nationalist failed to show the story was supported by verifiable sources.

THE PRESS OMBUDSMAN has found against a local newspaper which incorrectly suggested that some of its teachers were uncomfortable with female students wearing tightly fitting clothing.

In a judgement published earlier this week, the Press Ombudsman ruled that the Carlow Nationalist failed to demonstrate that the front-page article was supported by “adequate and verifiable sources to confirm its accuracy”.

The article led to widespread criticism of the second-level school on social media last November, when the issue was also raised during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil.

It was reported that female pupils at the school were told not to wear leggings or tight tracksuit bottoms as it was “distracting” for their teachers – something which the school and its principal Ray Murray strongly denied.

At the time, Murray appeared on national radio saying that he was certain that the comments had not been made.

He explained that female students from each year had been called to individual assemblies without any male students present, but were asked to wear correct uniforms on PE days, which were described as becoming like a “fashion show”.

Complaints about the Carlow Nationalist’s story were subsequently made to the Press Council of Ireland, whose office is partly responsible for the regulation of newspapers, by Murray and the secretary of the school’s board of management.

They claimed that the newspaper had breached the Press Council’s principles on truth and accuracy, distinguishing fact and comment, and a respect for rights.

The council this week upheld complaints in relation to its principles on truth and accuracy and distinguishing fact and comment. The complaint relating to a breach of its principle on a respect for rights was dismissed.

It outlined how Murray had contacted the editor of the newspaper to complain that the article was “significantly inaccurate” after its publication.

It said that the principal took particular issue with a claim that female students were told “not to wear tight leggings to school as it was ‘distracting’ for their male teachers” and “not to roll up their skirts too short or to tighten up their jumpers and sweatshirts as this was also too revealing of their body shapes”.

However, the newspaper said it had directed Murray towards an online petition in support of female students who said they had been informed that they “were not allowed to wear leggings or tight bottoms for PE”.

The paper also said it later became aware of comments posted on social media by parents about the issue, and that it had interviewed the parents of some of the children who had been informed of the clothing requirement.

The editor stood over the article’s accuracy and said the newspaper had attempted to get a response from the school in advance of publishing the article, but that the school did not respond.

Murray subsequently made a complaint to the Press Council, claiming that the article had reported comments, rumours and unconfirmed reports as facts.

He said the school had declined to comment on the claims at the time, as it did not wish to “provide fuel for the fire of a ‘non-story frenzy’ circulating on social media”. 

In response to the complaint, the Carlow Nationalist told the Press Council that it had spoken to parents and to pupils who had attended the assemblies, and that it had no “reason to doubt the veracity” of what it was told.

It added that if the school had responded to the numerous attempts by the newspaper to contact it for comment, the complaint “may never have arisen”.

The school responded to the newspaper’s complaint by saying that there was no obligation on it to respond to the newspaper’s request for a comment.

They also noted that the absence of a response did not allow the Carlow Nationalist to publish “a significantly inaccurate” story.

In its ruling, the council found that The Carlow Nationalist breached Principle 1 and 2 of its code of practice.

The decision was appealed by the paper, but rejected by the Press Ombudsman, who agreed with the council that both principles had been breached.

“The Ombudsman made its decision on the basis that the newspaper had failed to demonstrate that the article was supported by adequate and verifiable sources to confirm its accuracy and accordingly was a breach of Principle 1,” the decision read.

“It also found that the Press Ombudsman was correct in his conclusion that Principle 2 was breached for the reasons that he gave – that the newspaper failed to demonstrate in the article that it had appropriately distinguished between fact and comment, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports.”

In a statement on Friday, Presentation College Carlow welcomed the decision, thanking those who “stood by our school community during this difficult time”.